April 21, 2011
H.E. Paul Biya
President of the Republic of Cameroon
Via facsimile: (237) 22 20 33 06
Dear President Biya,
A year ago this week, journalist Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota died in his cell in Nkondengui prison in the capital Yaoundé while in pre-trial custody on criminal charges based on his activities as the editor of the monthly Cameroon Express. We hold the government responsible for Ngota’s death, and we call on you to initiate reforms so that no other Cameroonian journalist is thrown in prison in retaliation for reporting on issues of public interest. We urge you to implement reforms referring press offenses to civil courts, not criminal courts, in line with democracy, transparency and accountability.
Mr. President, journalists are not above the law, as Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary recently told CPJ, but neither are security forces and public figures who abuse their authority to settle scores with critics in the press. Ngota was first arrested on February 5, 2010, after he and three other journalists sent a questionnaire to presidential adviser Laurent Esso about allegations of embezzlement of public funds at Cameroon’s state oil authority SNH. The allegations were based on a confidential document, allegedly leaked from Esso’s office, regarding the purchase of an SNH ship.
Esso never publicly commented on the allegations, but, according to the government’s own investigation, ordered agents of the state intelligence agency known as DGRE, under the authority of the presidency, to arrest Ngota and the three other journalists and unmask their sources. One of the journalists detained with Ngota, reporter Simon Hervé Nko’o of the weekly Bebela, accused DGRE agents of torturing him psychologically and physically during his weeklong incommunicado detention without charge. The administration has never publicly commented on the torture allegations, which were documented by a doctor who examined Nko’o after his release.
Your Excellency, Cameroon is a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However, in its May 2010 report, the UN Committee Against Torture noted that the government had failed to provide information allowing the committee to assess whether the definition of torture under the Cameroonian criminal code complied with the Convention. The committee also expressed concern that, “in practice, detainees, from the time of their arrest, rarely benefit from the guarantees provided for in the Code of Criminal Procedure.”
Ngota was rearrested on February 25, 2010, after Esso filed a complaint about the document purportedly leaked from his office. A public prosecutor charged Ngota and two other journalists with “forging the signature of an official,” and threw them in Nkondengui prison pending trial. Relatives of Ngota told CPJ that the prison warden had denied their requests to transfer Ngota, who was suffering from high blood pressure, from the Kosovo ward of the prison where he was held with hardened felons, allegedly because only the public prosecutor had such authority. Ngota died a few weeks later in pre-trial detention, which can last up to 18 months under Cameroonian law. In the May 2010 report, the Committee Against Torture said it remained “deeply concerned by the high number of persons held in pretrial detention,” and urged the government to “reduce the period of pretrial detention” and view pretrial detention “as an exceptional measure.”
Mr. President, the April 22 anniversary of Ngota’s death should be an opportunity for you to exert strong leadership by ending the practice of arbitrary and abusive detentions and criminal prosecutions of journalists reporting on issues of public interest, such as allegations of public corruption. We therefore call on you to reform the criminal code so that defamation, libel and press offenses are adjudicated by civil courts. In the interest of public accountability, transparency and democracy, we call on you to take all necessary steps to hold to account officials and security services who abuse their authority in reprisals against their critics in the press.
Thank you for your attention to these issues which tarnish Cameroon’s international image. We await you reply.